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HENNA A Celebration

The age-old tradition of henna is symbolic of happiness and celebration. Liked by young and old, intricate marks by this dye on the skin are delightfully beautiful and daintily feminine.

When my daughter was just five, I took her to a family wedding. Despite various fascinating things happening around her, she promptly went to the 'henna corner' where she found the fragrance truly inviting.

At that time, all the women were discussing the colours on each person's hand. I was not in the area as there were many other things to attend to, but the fact that a husband loves the woman whose henna stains are darker and deeper was something that registered in her mind.

Traditionally, women in different states have a different manner of henna designs. South Indian women and brides wear henna which is just one circle or one circle surrounded by many dots. North Indian patterns are intricate. And, of course there exist Bollywood and cosmopolitan influences that dictate what designs would in vogue in a season.

Traditionally, the mehendi or henna motif is not only the adoration of the bride; rather it epitomises her transformation from a virgin girl to a temptress for her husband. As per the Kama Sutra, henna is one of the 64 womanly arts. Sociologically, it signifies the bride calling the groom towards her. Henna is a flowering plant used since antiquity to dye skin, hair, fingernails, leather and wool. The name is also used for dye preparations derived from the plant, and for the art of temporary tattooing based on those dyes. Archaeological and anthropological evidence indicate that henna traditions had early origins on the eastern coasts of the Mediterranean, Nubia, Libya, Tunisia, Arabia, Assyria, Mesopotamia, Persia and India. These traditions sometimes merged or moved through cultural transmission; sometimes they became innovative when there were periods of wealth and leisure, sometimes they vanished in cultural change.

Henna use and traditions began in the late Neolithic period and were included in animist religions in these areas, and later incorporated into Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism. The common ground of these traditions is the henna plant itself – it can only grow in a narrow ecological range. This climate range, that of heat and drought, puts a unique set of stressors on human populations, and the henna traditions frequently reflect concerns with these stressors.

Henna or mehndi is a paste made from the finely ground leaves of the henna plant. One of the great things about henna is that anyone can use it. While henna does have ritual significance in many cultures, it's not ‘sacred to one specific culture or religion and it's accessible to anyone who approaches it honestly and respectfully.

Usually, the future bride has her hands and feet intricately patterned. The application of mehndi or henna takes hours to complete. Different shades can be obtained by mixing in various additives like indigo, tea, coffee, cloves, tamarind, lemon, sugar, and various oils. For convenience, today mehndi is readily available as packs or cones, and design stencils can also be obtained off the shelf. Beautician Shahnaz Husain says, “The men feed the women, because they have to wait for the henna to dry.” Naturally, this act of intimacy brings the couple closer. Today, many brides opt to have it done the day before their mehndi event and have just the last touches applied at the party. This ensures a beautiful design free from the worries of getting bumped, and also allows the bride time to have fun with family and friends. Ladies also add glitter, sequins or rhinestones to the design as embellishments.

As modern life creeps in on tradition, mehndi continues to evolve. It has gone from an all-women event to mixed, and then back again to ladies-only with the addition of manicures and pedicures. And now even men host a mehndi event for family and friends, complete with several artists and catered food – usually at the same time as the bride is hosting hers.